Faced with a serious threat from Democrats in November, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk’s campaign has loaded its website with general election rhetoric.
The campaign used its Twitter feed this month to call U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, the leading Democratic challenger, a “naïve fool” who “lives in a fantasy world of her own making.”
Harsh words. But James Marter might also feel a sting.
That’s because the 56-year-old Kirk still must survive a challenge by Marter for the Republican nomination in Illinois’ March 15 primary before facing Duckworth, Andrea Zopp or state Sen. Napoleon Harris in November. And weeks before Election Day, Kirk’s campaign already was looking well beyond Marter.
The Oswego Republican, a 53-year-old software consultant, brings little name recognition to the race and even less money. He last reported $2,600 in campaign cash on hand, compared to Kirk’s $3.79 million. But Marter says Kirk needed a Republican challenger, and he has promised a big headline for the day after the election.
“I have a legitimate shot at unseating a sitting senator,” Marter said. “That’s going to be the story of the day.”
The Kirk campaign didn’t make the senator available for an interview. But Kirk spokesman Kevin Artl said his boss takes the primary challenge “very seriously” and realizes the winner in March will face an aggressive challenge from Democrats in the fall. Artl said it has “strong contrasts to draw.”
“Illinois is going to be ground zero for control of the United States Senate,” Artl said.
Marter accuses Kirk of abandoning Republican principles on issues such as gun control and immigration policy and by voting not to repeal Obamacare or de-fund Planned Parenthood. He said he decided to run against Kirk because no other Republican would.
“I’ll tell you I am a real Republican, and I will stand with the platform,” Marter said.
Kirk, of Highland Park, has endorsements from leading Illinois Republicans including Gov. Bruce Rauner and the GOP leaders in the Illinois House and Senate, Jim Durkin and Christine Radogno.
Artl said Kirk has voted to repeal and replace Obamacare “over 40 times, though the senator more recently chose not to risk a government shutdown with another repeal vote.
Meanwhile, the 2016 campaign has been roiled by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. President Barack Obama said he’ll nominate a successor, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that should fall to the next president.
Marter said the Senate should hold confirmation hearings if Obama nominates someone who would “uphold the constitution and not reinterpret it.” He said that’s unlikely.
Kirk also tried to rise above the partisan fray in an op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times in which he wrote, “I recognize the right of the president, be it Republican or Democrat, to place before the Senate a nominee for the Supreme Court.
“I also recognize my duty as a senator to either vote in support or opposition to that nominee following a fair and thorough hearing along with a complete and transparent release of all requested information.”
Kirk had a stroke in 2012 and has faced physical obstacles, including struggles with speech and having to learn to walk again.
A series of verbal gaffes recently captured national headlines. He was caught on a live microphone calling the unmarried U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a “bro with no ho.” He added: “That is what we’d say on the South Side.”
And following the Iran nuclear deal, Kirk said Obama wants “to get nukes to Iran.”
Kirk repeatedly apologized. In July, major GOP donor Ron Gidwitz told Crain’s Chicago Business that Kirk should give up his seat but later retracted the comment. Since then, Artl said Gidwitz has been a “great ally” and recently helped throw a fundraiser for Kirk.
Marter said people thank him regularly for getting in the race and that he’s getting “phenomenal” grassroots support. That has, in some cases, translated into dollars for his campaign coffers — otherwise funded by family and friends.
“He’s not with us anymore,” Marter said of Kirk. “We need someone who is.”
VITAL STATS: Mark Kirk and James Marter
First job: Lifeguard and swim instructor for the Peoria park district
Guilty pleasure: Mountain Dew
Favorite pig-out food: Steak and potatoes
Political hero: Ronald Reagan
First job: Computer programmer in Chicago
Guilty pleasure: Playing Microsoft flight simulator
Favorite pig-out food: Mom’s lasagna
Political hero: Winston Churchill